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Notes: Cory Doctorow at Harvard, Feb 15, 2006

Thursday, February 16th, 2006

Cory Doctorow at Harvard, 15 Feb

Cory Doctorow’s talk at Harvard tonight was titled “Set Top Cops” and worked through the various threats posed by DRM. I use the word “threat” not to take a side in this debate, though my position may be obvious, but rather to stress that this talk largely succeeded in discrediting DRM as sustainable strategy. Over an hour, Doctorow’s presentation constructed a checklist to determine the Internet-readiness of various business models. It roughly reads as follows:

Your business model is NOT Internet-ready IF…

  1. …it criminalizes the behavior of the majority of Internet users.
  2. …suppresses science.
  3. …allows product features to stagnate.
  4. …incurs multi-million dollar lawsuits.
  5. …content is valued over community.
  6. …it sustains the myth that there can ever be a copy-proof bit.

To support this list, Doctorow suggested that the majority of Internet users have participated in activity that infringed on a copyright monopoly. In the cases of anti-circumvention legislation (viz WIPO, DMCA) and permission-based extensibility (DVD tech), short-term protection has led to the loss of unforseen features and added value in long-term. He describes a century-long arc of change in the relationship between creators and consumers that begins with the key value lying in the charisma of performers, shifting toward virtuosity with recorded audio/ video, and arriving now with the conversational vibe of “MySpace bands.”

The success of the conversational creator/consumer relationship is a strange triumph for underground musics. My participation in hardcore/punk through out the 90’s and early-2000’s was largely reliant on friendship-style interaction. I regularly traded tapes and shows with strangers from around the world and the advent of the Internet facilitated an incredible amplification of these values. Entire tours could be booked via email and messageboards; ad-hoc social-networks prior to explicity relational tools such as Myspace, or Friendster. (Though, it should be noted that hardcore kids have always used available tech to step beyond traditional industry models. 15 years ago bands used the same blue box technology that launched Apple to book their tours.)

My thinking is also spurred by Doctorow’s discussion of the mythological “copy-resistant bit.” In true futurist fashion, I am beginning to suspect that now is simply an extension of a larger transitional phase in which we move away from media altogether. As input devices grow more intuitive and network availability edges toward ubiquity, there will be fewer and fewer barriers between our thoughts and their expressions. Where once the former enjoyed considerably more liberty, they may both soon achieve a sense of intangibility and infinite reproducibility. At that point, legal code concerning the copying of any expression ought to look quite different to be of any use to us.

I was pleased to hear the accomplished sci-fi author address his rather privileged position as both an advocate for the arts and a creator in one of the last fields (publishing) to remain relatively safe from the copying-frenzy that follows rampant digitization. “The biggest threat to an author is not piracy,” states Doctorow, “but obscurity.” By licensing his work to be distributed freely online and for dollars offline, he has broken free of this flight from obscurity but he recognizes that it is not a model that can last. “Technology giveth and technology taketh away,” he said, referring to the fact that writers should be considering ways to make money once their work is best distributed as bits.

For its simplicity, Doctorow’s working definition of DRM is worth reproducing here as well. “DRM controls your use of media after you acquire it lawfully.” I like this definition for its clarity in expressing that DRM hurts only those consumers who conform to the law.

He also wore a B * A * S * H shirt and that’s worth a few points alone!

Open code supports local economies

Monday, January 23rd, 2006

Reviewing my notes from the Maddog talk, I realize that I omitted a critical revelation in my last post. In an argument for f/oss novel to my ears, Maddog explained the benefit that open code can have on local tech economy. If a company deploys an open-source product, they can then hire developers in their area to maintain, support, and extend that software. This localization is meaningful regardless of whether an organization is located in Georgia the state or Georgia the nation.

Recently, charter schools came under fire at the State House and one of the charges was that we have not fulfilled our commitment to sharing successful techniques with the larger public school community. There are many reasons that this communication has not occurred; some political, others circumstantial. Developing and supporting open code might be a powerful move towards rectifying this situation. Software available freely online could help teachers, staff, and administrators at a variety of institutions start to communicate without the morass of scheduled meetings.

SSA: User-defined social networking

Tuesday, November 15th, 2005

The most successful social networks appear to strike a balance between familiar content/activity and abstract openness. These sites seem to reflect the efforts of their users to push towards that balance. A strange example of the evolution of the social networking ecosystem comes in terms of ethnicity and culture. I was struck by Joe’s comments with regard to Phillipino people and Friendster. I’ve observed the same phenomenon with the children of Brazilian immigrants and Orkut.

At the start of last year, my students used social networks that reflected their ethnicities such as MiGente, Blackplanet, and Asian Avenue. After a few months, I noticed that students were managing accounts on multiple services. For example, out of a desire to better represent their offline networks, Latino students created profiles on Blackplanet. By September ’05, MySpace had trumped the competition.

In fact, a student recently told me that Friendster is for white people and MySpace is for people of color. In other words, despite the fact that every user’s first friend on MySpace is the ubiquitous dorky white guy, Tom, the users are defining cultural expectations of the space for themselves.

(If this interests you, I stand by my call for open social inter-networking.)

SSA: biz talk outside of IT

Tuesday, November 15th, 2005

This debate seems constantly in danger of slipping toward Dilbert concerns. Characterizing management as stupid and workers as essentially adept does not accurately reflect the experiences I have had as a temp in more traditional (non-IT) corporate environments.

It is interesting to try and expand the “Hollywood model” (temporary teams organized short-term around specific projects) to industries such as insurance or healthcare. Although processes may be virtually identical from company to company, confidential data is critical. Could a geographically disparate team be organized around a thorny auto claim made on a rental car in a foreign country? Photographers local to the crash document the scene for an analysis group local to the insured relying on an outsourced archival department for supporting documents.

From an educator’s perspective, the Hollywood model twists in yet another fashion. While a small group comprised of both full-time educators and those outside of the school community might be most effective at planning and executing a lesson, it is not necessarily true that that group would be most effective at actually succeeding in teaching a class. This is because success in the classroom relies heavily on sustained, trusting relationships between students and teachers. Perhaps an essential component in applying the Hollywood model to education is dividing the teacher’s role of trusted-adult from information-supplier, performance-assessor, etc? In this way, schools might have a full time staff of advisor-teachers supported by part-time consultants from the community who can supply high-quality, up-to-date information?

Corante SSA most bloggable

Tuesday, November 15th, 2005

In just a few hours, my alarm will wake me for the Corante Symposium on Social Architecture. Rebecca bought a new laptop and I’m now continuing my 8 year free-PC streak as the happy owner of a 700mhz Thinkpad. It is my youngest machine. Running Ubuntu, it’s quite peppy.

I’m a little uneasy at this move towards portable computing. One of my least favorite aspects of tech-oriented conferences has been the socially vile practice of sitting lost in one’s laptop as a speaker is ignored at the front of the room. As I experiment with using QWERTY for note-taking rather than my trusted pen&paper system, I am going to pay special attention to my behavior with respect to the rest of the human beings in the room.

I wonder how many other attendees consider a 7:30am Tuesday wake-up to be sleeping-in.

Grokster and the SC: hairs raised and split

Wednesday, March 30th, 2005

Today, Timothy Armstrong, a teaching assistant for the class that provides impetus for this blog, writes from the exciting Supreme Court argument in MGM v. Grokster. Tim’s comments are encouraging and it seems Grokster is off to a strong start considering my waning optimism.

“…the Justices have a hearteningly clear grasp of what the software does and doesn’t do. MGM also argued that the Ninth Circuit’s decision was itself chilling technological innovation, although they defined “innovation” as innovation authorized by copyright holders. MGM closed with its pity-the-starving-artists line, complaining about the lost revenues from hypothesized sales it says would have occurred absent file-sharing.”

Read the complete account over at Timothy K. Armstrong’s blog.

It Worked!

Wednesday, March 16th, 2005

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